Champions League at the Lane in Three Scenes

 

Best bit of the Ajax game? Everything before kick-off. Just another day. Work – writing reports up. Chores. Walk dog. More reports. Clear up. Prepare dinner. Get on a train. Watch Spurs in a Champions League semi-final at my home ground. Just another day.

Walking to the ground from Tottenham Hale is the eye of the hurricane, a leisurely stroll through city backstreets before the noise gets you. Far from an intrusive behemoth, the stadium is hidden once more behind the houses, faithful to Spurs’ roots amidst ordered terraces and looming up only when I’m a minute away. So my new routine includes one of life’s little pleasures, the quickening of the step to round the final corner, knowing it’s there, just to see it that much sooner.

Then it hits you. That something in the air. More people, a lot more police, excitement and anticipation. Roads are blocked, the delay serves to ramp up the tension, rumours of bottles thrown on the High Street but no Ajax fans in sight. My first ever queue at the new turnstiles. The welcoming buzz from the concourse, a sound that can only be a football crowd.

The noise from the Park Lane, spreading round the ground, sitting over the centre spot. Intense, vibrant, unforgettable. Doesn’t want to go anywhere. Passion and fury where it belongs.

Second best bit of the Ajax game? The morning after, when you take stock and realise in the cold light of day that it’s just half-time. In between, nah.

Ajax’s movement, pace and intelligence in the first half proved far too hot to handle. We didn’t get near their shadows. No escape from the stifling press. Bad touches and misplaced passes for sure, but there appeared to be no way out. The bloke behind me who coaches from row 23 like a Sunday league manager with a hangover urged more effort and more getting stuck in. Well, yes, but for extended periods, no amount of sweat and toil alone could have stopped the Dutch advances. Their goal released a player who had time and space in a packed penalty area. How did they do that? Spurs’ back five don’t know.

As Vertonghen staggered from the field after a clash of heads with Alderweireld, his distress and state of collapse summed up Spurs’ night so far. Happily, he recovered quickly, although rightly may not be available this weekend due to concussion. Look after him, and let the docs take the decision. We know he’d play for our sake, bleeding and battered, if it were up to him.

If it was hard to believe Spurs are in the semi-final of the Champions League, it was all too easy to envisage it all falling down around our ears. Thinking quickly, Pochettino used this as an opportunity to bring on Our Saviour, Moussa Sissoko, and change from a back three to a 4-4-2. This posed more problems for our opponents, plus Sissoko contributed much-needed energy and drive from deep positions.

Going longer to Llorente proved a worthwhile option. And when I say worthwhile, I mean the only option. Forgive me the delusion that it might have worked, he did his best, but against this defence, his best is not enough. However shrewd his touches and lay-offs, the defence found them relatively straightforward to smother. The tactics also pinned players close to him by way of support, which negates Moura’s pace, makes Dele easier to pick up and limits our options out wide.

We barely served up a decent cross all night. Rose was very good again save for his final ball, the same can’t be said for Trippier, sometimes unfairly criticised but justified on this occasion. Llorente’s in for his aerial ability, yet he missed our best chance, a free header from a first half free kick. Dele looked out of sorts. It may be only a hand injury but his form’s dropped away since it happened. I realise he’s had to drop deeper to do a job for the team but he misses Kane more than any of us.

The state of play in three scenes. Scene one: early on, Eriksen picks up the ball just inside their half, for once in a bit of space. His pass is quick and instinctive. Llorente comes off the defender and turns towards their goal. Then, nothing. He fiddles around because he knows he can’t run with it, something which of course has not escaped our opponents’ attention, so they funnel back into position and he knocks it tamely sideways. It doesn’t sound like much but we didn’t get another similar opportunity. You know Kane or Son would have been gone, up and at them, putting fear and trepidation into Dutch hearts.

That moment sums up where we are right now. I tried not to, really tried, but there were times when I narrowed my eyes and imagined Harry leading the line, head over the ball, hunting and inspiring. Impossible to escape that feeling of what might have been. I sincerely hope that sentence isn’t our season’s epitaph.

Scene two: Tottenham Hotspur play a Champions League semi-final with no forwards on the bench, let alone a striker. Home leg, goal down, we bring on two full-backs, one of whom, good though he is, is really a centre half. Not the time to dwell on this, but the gaps in the squad laid bare and raw. Not even an under 23 striker. It should not have come to this.

Scene three: we’re still in in it. We have it in us to spring a surprise in Amsterdam. We proved against Dortmund that we can defend, and Moura and Son are two ideal forwards for a counter-attacking game.

In the second half, we didn’t play well but we did restrict Ajax’s chances. Lloris had little to do, a sign perhaps that the Dutch are not as effective going forward as they might be. You bring the straws, I’ll clutch them. Even McDonalds paper straws.

It won’t be about a change of personnel. It will be about who we have giving everything they’ve got for the sake of fans and for the shirt. This we know they can do. Poch will come up with something. Show the football world what’s possible, show them who we are and what we have become. As Poch said in the programme, “it’s important that as players and fans, we show why this is such a special football club.” It’s an opportunity of a lifetime. Leave nothing in the dressing room and have no regrets.

Sincere thanks to the gent who walked past before the game, saw my TOMM t-shirt and said he liked the blog.

This week, I guested on the Football Pink podcast, reminiscing about the 1991 cup semi-final. The Arsenal bloke didn’t make it so there’s too much of me. And Gazza’s free-kick should have been third on my all-time list of Spurs’ moments. Listen anyway.

12 thoughts on “Champions League at the Lane in Three Scenes

  1. Great match report. You have perfectly captured our fragile mix of realism and cautious optimism. No lack of effort on Tuesday, but they were a surprisingly mature team. Keep on blogging Alan!

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  2. Thanks for the positive take on Tuesday evening, Alan. I detect the sense that something might just be pulled from the hat next Wednesday growing quietly too.

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  3. What’s devastating for the club and the fans is that we’ve just witnessed two of the poorest Spurs’ performances in a row for perhaps four years (excluding those sulk-ridden games which ended the
    2015/16 season following the fight-back, and fight, at the Bridge where Chelsea escorted Leicester to the PL title. The results afterwards cost us the consolation of 2nd, as Arsenal exploited final game losses that Poch wanted to ‘kill’ us over. Maybe there were a couple of other really poor games in a row somewhere over the past 4 years, but fortunately I can’t remember them. Whereas these two, Ajax especially, I just know I won’t forget, as our invincibility at ‘home’, carried on from that last great season at the Lane in 2016/17, crumbled to dust).
    So yes, I’m disappointed and I’m fed up. Do I blame Poch’s tactics for Tuesday? Not really. I look back to some of the teams we destroyed with that 3-5-2 line up, with Walker and Rose rampaging up the flanks, and Kane, Eriksen and Alli carving out chances for each other up front. No, what’s more worrying is the sudden loss of creativity in our team, the pass and move, the easy dominating possession akin to a cobra waiting to strike a hypnotised opponent, the inter-linking and wavelength of the players on the pitch, the quick counter, the ‘unforced’ pace in front of, and behind, the opponents’ defence, the knowing when to ‘press’ in unison …and, not least, the sharpness and sheer belief of the team. Suddenly, after our unbelievable and glorious exploits over two games against City, arguably the best team (for possession and creating chances en masse’) in the world, we’ve deflated like a cheap frido. The injuries, the tiredness, the players playing out of position to compensate, yet not really assisting the cause because of that fact, and the thin squad where a player like Skipp sits on the bench constantly, but in the unfortunate knowledge that he really IS a last resort.
    How I wanted Spurs to show the world what we could do on Tuesday, but we failed ingloriously against an admittedly highly talented and very brave young Dutch team that, bar the opening 25 minutes, when even they must have wondered what the hell was going on with us, we should have had the power and skill to overcome, albeit narrowly. Yes, I know, Alan. It is what it is, because of our injuries! But this wasn’t the Spurs team that beat Dortmund with relative ease, 4 times out of 4 over two seasons, that dominated in the San Siro against Inter, and in Eindhoven against PSV (despite silly and costly slips in both games). This isn’t the team that gained glorious revenge against Inter in the return at Wembley, and beat PSV easily there. This isn’t the team that drew comfortably with Real in Madrid and then smashed them at Wembley, or which dominated Juve’, only to end up shooting ourselves in the foot again. That determinedly drew in the Noucamp against a slightly weakened Barca. What I’m saying is that even when ‘deservedly’ losing (Barca at Wembley) or drawing, we’ve ‘looked’ like a damn good CL side over the past two seasons. In 1962, we lost a classic semi over 2 matches to the eventual winners, one of the greatest ever teams, Benfica, and we were apparently unlucky in both legs! So I wanted a bit, or taste, of that last Tuesday (‘Glory’ ..even if we we went down).
    I just wanted some of that. And then I realised that I was wrong about our squad in the summer, and like so many other smug supporters at the start of the season, I thought we had plenty of back-up, and anyway, we won’t suffer countless injuries to key players at crucial times! Duh. Of course we needed to bring in players!! Yes, our best team (although we had no replacement for Dembele and got rid of him 6 months too early in my opinion) is still just about a match for anyone on its day, but we should have factored in proper cover. Hardly anyone has spoken of the loss of Winks to this team. His central midfield tigerish play has been vital, but been greatly missed through injury, at key times, and he can’t be Dembele’s long-term replacement if he’s going to miss so many important games. Dier, like Tripps, has been in and out, hit and miss, all season, while Sanches has seemingly gone backwards, and KWP hasn’t developed like we thought. I’m pleased for Wanyama coming back from the dead, but even he isn’t the reliable power he once was. So thank God for Sissoko’s resurgence, and I shudder to think how much worse it could have been on Tuesday if his appearance hadn’t been forced by the awful and unfortunate Verts incident. Then there’s Alli, who’s being wasted because, one, he’s not a central midfielder, and two, he’s not even an attacking midfielder. Alli is Alli, a unique no. 10, a ghost of a player (akin to the great John White who I saw play in my first Lane game, Easter 1964, just a couple of months before his awful death, and Martin Peters), someone who makes space for himself and his team-mates in ways many critics can’t even see, and he links perfectly with Kane and Eriksen. That triumvirate, when all the tools are working, has been even more important than the Walker (Trippier) Rose and Toby/Verts combos at their best, but with Kane missing, Alli playing out of position, and Eriksen likewise, the latter two may as well have been strangers on that pitch last Tuesday. Llorente, bless him, was so far off the pace and having no effective link-ups with team-mates, it was horrible to watch. Moura, all pace and effort but no real direction, hitting brick walls, including those made by his own team-mates. And no Son because of a stupid suspension rule!
    So yes. I was sad Tuesday, because I wanted to taste a tiny bit of Glory again, as we all did!
    Injuries, tiredness and imbalance made us look like the mid-table PL team we were through most of the early and mid PL years, not a team on the cusp of claiming the greatest trophy of them all; and I wanted the world of football, and football fans, to witness a Spurs team that Dared to Do on Tuesday, and that was truly all about the Glory.
    Maybe next week.

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    • Great stuff mate, thanks very much. Let’s hang to that chance of glory until Wednesday, although I’m not feeling that optimistic after yesterday’s game…Dier looks completely shot, his recovery after his appendix op is worrying slow, other injuries after the England game…ah well, fresh hope cpme Wednesday…

      Cheers, Al

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  4. As always, superior insight and capturing of the moment, Alan. TBF, Fish & Chips sent in three crosses (two from FKs, I believe) that produced 3 of the 5 free headers we had, and we put them all wide or high. Ajax has some concern in the center of their D. Also, whispers that Harry may be on the bench next week, maybe just to unnerve them? To Dare is to Do!

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  5. Cheers Ashley, Fair play on Trippier. His confidence levels have gradually dropped since the WC, but then again the team as a whole have lost their swagger and rhythm – and the little matter of scoring goals. If Harry is not fit, and I don’t suppose he is, I’d honestly prefer him to have the entire summer off – unless he can come on, score the winner, then we can tell England he’s injured again

    Cheers, Alan

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